Restorative practices for academic integrity

Topics: Blog, Editorial

When training to become a restorative conference facilitator, an early exercise involves brainstorming and then ranking the reasons that “most people do the right thing most of the time.” In the two years that I have given this training, invariably, “fear of punishment” is mentioned, but it always appears fairly low on the list, whereas “values,” “community,” and “responsibilities tied to relationships,” or a version thereof, consistently appear at the top. In my experience, this insight is partially reflected in most of our institutions’ approaches to academic integrity, in a focus on prevention and education over policing and punishment. But to what extent does prevention and education directly speak to the reasons people do the right thing? And how well are these reasons reflected when things go wrong, that is, in our response to misconduct? In what follows, I’m going to explore these questions and argue that restorative practices can be a powerful contributor to a culture of (academic) integrity over and above one of mere compliance.

What I’ve found striking over the years is how readily students who engaged in academic misconduct frame their wrongdoing in terms of a rule violation and how rarely it is explored as an ethical transgression, that is, as a violation not only of the values we associate with academic integrity, but of those students themselves associate with ethical conduct. This is problematic, since acting with integrity by definition requires an awareness of the ethical dimensions of a given situation and decision. To bridge this gap, a reflection on the concrete harms to relationships and community that academic misconduct involves, as well as on the resulting obligations is required.

Also, how well do our responses to academic misconduct align with our own values and with our institutions’ civic education mandate that is reflected in some form or other in our institutions’ mission and vision statements? Are our discipline procedures geared towards helping students develop an ethical awareness and learn from their mistakes through socio-emotional learning, or do they focus merely on encouraging compliance through deterrence? My experience is that our default responses to academic misconduct, governed by quasi-legal policies and procedures, by far do more of the latter than the former.

At MacEwan University, in Edmonton, Canada, these observations lead to the integration of restorative practices as the default resolution mechanism into its academic misconduct procedure (and now also its non-academic misconduct policy) since July 2018.

Restorative practices1 refer to a social science and set of practices integrating “developments from a variety of disciplines and fields … [that] build healthy communities, increase social capital, decrease crime and antisocial behavior, repair harm and restore relationships” (Wachtel, 2013 as cited in IIRP, n.d.).

The key is to focus on the harms resulting from academic misconduct in a collaborative process that holds students accountable and collaboratively explores how harms can be repaired, as well as what needs to be put in place to avoid misconduct in the future. In a fairly formalized procedure, a trained restorative conference facilitator guides the responding student (responsible party), the faculty member (harmed party), and a student association representative (harmed party), through a set of questions2 that forces students to listen to the impacts of their actions (material, emotional, on the community) and helps them take responsibility.

To be clear, restorative practices by no means replace standard, quasi-legal disciplinary procedures, since they are only effectively applied when a student is willing to truly take responsibility for their actions, but I have found that more often than not they are an appropriate default starting point. Not only do they promote integrity, rather than mere compliance, by creating an awareness in students of the ethical dimensions of academic misconduct, they also are a practical application of the factors that consistently are named as the reasons that people do the right thing most of the time, namely of values within community and responsibilities tied to relationships.

Critically, though, what is restored in a restorative practices resolution, is not only or mainly the “offender,” but more importantly a sense of community and of honesty, trust, responsibility, fairness, respect, and courage.

 

[1] Even though restorative practices have their roots in restorative justice, it is now employed as an umbrella term for a variety of practices, including restorative justice.

[2] International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP). (n.d.). Defining restorative. iirp.edu/defining-restorative/restorative-conference

About the Author
Dr. Paul Sopcak is Coordinator of the Office of Student Conduct, Community Standards and Values, at MacEwan University in Canada, where he also teaches comparative literature and philosophy. His research interests include the empirical study of literature, empathy, restorative practices, phenomenology, and existential philosophy. He is an IIRP certified trainer of restorative conference facilitation, assistant editor for the journal Scientific Study of Literature and Member at Large of the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature (IGEL).
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